It’s Been a Tough Day for us In Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh Police Chaplain sitting with Rabbi Alvin Berkun.
A Pittsburgh Police Chaplain sitting with Rabbi Alvin Berkun.

Today, wearing my Steelers kippah while flying from Florida to Pittsburgh felt like an act of spiritual defiance. Those who hate Jews in Pittsburgh or anywhere will not win.

After landing, I bought a bottle of water at the Pittsburgh airport. The saleswoman was so friendly that I quipped how I had forgotten how nice people are in this city with such deep, blue collar roots. “It’s been a tough day for us, sir,” she responded with a tear in her eye. I told her why I was there and where I was from. We both shed tears. I was crying and I hadn’t even rented my car yet.

The man who helped me pick a car (the issue was that I didn’t care if he had given me a bicycle) was similarly solemn. He said he couldn’t understand how or why someone could do such a thing. We hugged as if we knew each other for years. Then I drove off.

Without going into too much detail, I went straight to see my mother in the hospital. Her infection is under control and it will just take time. It felt strange thinking my mother’s health issues were going to be the easiest part of my day. Even her doctors wanted to talk more with us about the massacre than they did about my mother’s condition. It was surreal.

I sat in the hospital room with my parents while my father was glued to his phone as if it were an appendage he was born with. It never stopped ringing. He never put it down. And yet, he was clearly still in shock. He wanted to talk to the affected families and to the rabbis actively serving local congregations, but he kept getting interrupted by the media asking for interviews. I could see him aging before my very eyes.

When the aide arrived, my father and I left for the community-wide memorial vigil less than a mile away from my mother’s hospital. It was cold and rainy. We parked our cars alongside a Greek Orthodox priest in a floor length black robe. Clergy from all faiths had come to pray and pay respects.

We maneuvered between throngs of people from all backgrounds, ages and attires, stopping every three steps to hug someone he knew or someone I hadn’t seen in 25 years. Those reunions were tearful and were the main reason I came in the first place. When people experience trauma, the sudden realization that they are not alone triggers deep emotions, that people they had forgotten about cared enough to just show up. Tears flow, and that flow is the first movement towards healing.

The ceremony was what the community needed. It began with an acknowledgement of who was there, from interfaith clergy to local and national elected representatives, members of the administration, and high level officials from Israel. The underlying message was clear – this was a monumental attack of epic proportions. It was a game changing anti-Semitic hate crime. Pittsburgh is justified in feeling immense pain, grief and horror. And the only way through this darkness is for people of power to come together with people in the neighborhood.

That’s right. This terrorist attack happened in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Squirrel Hill, an area within the Pittsburgh city limits, is about as picturesque of classical Americana as you can find. But it was never monolithic. It was always diverse religiously, socio-economically, racially, and ethnically. It is a place where people felt a profound sense of homeyness and true concern for one another. It is a place where people don’t talk about caring for each other; they simply do it.

This is the place that was turned upside down on Shabbat morning at Tree of Life. But one speaker after another echoed the same recurring theme: hate will not defeat love. We will recover. We will rebuild. We will overcome.

I was touched to see the comforting gestures going both ways. Sometimes my father would comfort others, sometimes others would comfort him. In the middle of the service, when the local Imam was talking about how many thousands of dollars the Muslim community raised for the victims, an African American Christian priest who was a Police Chaplain reached for my father’s hand. She didn’t shake it but instead held it for the rest of the time we were on stage. It made me cry like everything else I experienced today.

While fielding some media calls of my own, I felt privileged to facilitate several interviews for my father before and after the service. Each time, the journalist first shared his or her painful connection to the tragedy. One New York anchorman was Jewish and grew up in Pittsburgh. One woman reporter was a Jewish immigrant herself who was brought to America by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) as a child. It appeared to be cathartic for both my father and the interviewers.

It was late, so my father and I went for pizza at a place I used to go as teenager. We were overdressed and the Steelers kippah was still out in full force, so we stood out like sore thumbs. Our waitress treated us with such compassion and sensitivity that it felt like a shiva meal. Right before we left, a man from the next table over who had been there all along, approached me to ask if I was on his flight this morning from Newark. No, I said. “But were you at the airport around 1 PM?” Yes, I was. He had noticed the kippah. He was from Pittsburgh but hadn’t been back in 20 years. Like me, he just got on a plane so that he could attend the memorial. “I couldn’t stay away,” he said. We hugged.

In order to turn onto the street where I grew up, I had to pass a policeman in his lighted patrol car. The whole block around the synagogue is cut off from traffic. He rolled down his window to ask if I lived on this street. “Once upon I time I did, ” I said. “But my parents still do, and today I need to go home.” I asked if I could walk over to the synagogue tomorrow. He told me that it would depend on how the FBI investigation is going.

Here’s one truth: Elderly Jews tend to come early to synagogue on Shabbat, and for some reason, many of them prefer to sit in the back. Maybe it’s so they can sleep through the rabbi’s sermon unnoticed, or maybe because it’s a shorter walk to the bathroom. That back row is where my father sits early every Shabbat at the Tree of Life Congregation. But the shooter also came early, and today, every single person who sits with my father in synagogue is dead. I have no doubt that had my mother not been ill, I would have flown home not to comfort my father, but to bury him.

Please keep these 11 individuals and their families in your prayers. I am going to visit some of them tomorrow as well as some of the injured officers and their families.

Daniel Stein, 71
Joyce Fienberg, 75
Richard Gottfried, 65
Rose Mallinger, 97
Jerry Rabinowitz, 66
Brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59 and David Rosenthal, 54
Husband and Wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86
Melvin Wax, 88
Irving Younger, 69

May their memories be a blessing.

Sent with a broken heart from the Steel City.

About the Author
Jonathan Berkun is the senior rabbi of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Miami, past-President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was raised in his father's synagogue, Tree of Life Congregation of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.
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